Weird. Angry. Cruel. Depressed. Troubled. Off. These are just some of the adjectives used by schoolmates to describe 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz after he allegedly shot and killed 14 students and 3 employees on February 14 at his former Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida. My fellow schoolmates may very well have described me using those same words during my freshman year in high school in 1991.
I was bullied daily by a classmate who was a towering and aggressive figure. His verbal taunts were demeaning and dehumanizing and the physical abuse he inflicted on me reduced me to a state of rage and despair. I felt broken and alone and contemplated revenge.
Around the time the bullying started, I was part of a minority of wayward students who regularly brought guns to school. Even though we were troubled and considered outcasts by both our teachers and peers, none of us ever contemplated shooting up our school. Mass school shootings simply weren't a phenomenon back then. Any conflicts between students were resolved via fist fights in the school's bathroom, at the bus stop, or in the neighborhood after school. Since I couldn't fight at the time, I used to avoid my tormentor as much as possible. And on the days when I couldn't avoid him, I received an ass-whipping.
There are always signs of a schoolmate being bullied. Aside from the obvious abuse which was witnessed by my classmates, I went from being a happy and playful kid to being this depressed, angry, sad, antisocial person who exhibited a multitude of other behavioral problems like Cruz. The bullying escalated to such a degree that I developed a strong desire to harm my abuser. That is, until a classmate named Fatia prevented me from acting on that desire.
Fatia used to sit behind me in class and must have sensed my desperation. One day when I had my face burried in my arms, she slid her desk up beside mine, leaned over, put her arms around me, and whispered these comforting words in my ear: "Don't worry about him. Everything's gonna be okay. I got your back."
Fatia had only acknowledged me a few times before this day. In fact, like all of my other classmates, she used to join in the laughter whenever my tormentor abused me. But when she whispered these words in my ear, somehow I knew that she was sincere and that I would be okay. And I was.
From that day forward, whenever my abuser approached me, Fatia would jump in front of him and scream at the top of her lungs: "Leave him alone!" The sheer thunder of her voice caused my abuser to slink back to his seat with his head bowed in shame. After a few of these retorts from Fatia, other classmates eventually joined her in collectively defending me from my abuser until he ceased all efforts at bullying me.
Looking back on this experience I realize that Fatia was a youth leader. Thairu Obuya defines a youth leader as someone who is able to exert influence on others, motivating them towards a common goal. With two acts -- comforting me during a traumatic event and defending me from a bully which then galvanized other classmates to do the same -- Fatia transformed the toxic culture in a classroom to one where bullying was no longer acceptable. And most importantly, her actions quite possibly prevented a tragedy from occurring.
I encourage all students to emulate the courageous example of Fatia. Be constantly aware of your surroundings in your school and those who are in it. Look for warning signs: If you notice a once sociable, happy, and upbeat schoolmate who suddenly becomes sad, angry, and disconnected, talk to that person and see if anything is troubling them. Sit with them in class or during lunch to show them that you care and that they are not alone. And most importantly, if you see a schoolmate being bullied or treated harshly in school for any reason, ALWAYS speak up in defense of that person in an act of solidarity. Remember, it is hurt people who hurt people. So, surround a schoolmate who appears troubled in a protective wall of love, support, and compassion, as if your very lives depends on it. Because in truth, it does.
Consider the massacres at Columbine High School where 13 students were shot dead on April 20, 1999; at Virginia Tech where 32 people were slaughtered on April 16, 2007; and at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 first graders were butchered on December 14, 2012. In each instance, your cries for help fell on the death ears of incompetent and unsympathetic political leaders who have repeatedly failed to take the necessary precautions to prevent you from being murdered in your schools, colleges, and universities. How many of you students must die in a mass school shooting before they act? 80? 100? 200?
In a country which spends more money on prisons, jails, and detention centers than on its schools, the time has come for students, themselves, to do what needs to be done to ensure that you return safely home to your family, friends, and communities.
So, in honor of the March For Your Lives on March 24th and walk out of school on April 20th to honor the students of the 1999 Columbine massacre, I encourage you to use both opportunities to organize campaigns for greater student control of your schools where you can develop your own solutions to the problems plaguing your schools, particularly mass school shootings.
I also encourage you to develop universal guidelines for transforming the culture in your schools where bullying, intolerance, and other kinds of mistreatment aren't allowed and where unity and inclusion are normalized. By doing so, you (and not NRA-backed politicians) may very well prevent the next mass school shooting.
Can we be the change political leaders fail to be? What are you (or could you be) doing to create a unified and inclusive environment in your school?